Grab your Dream by the Throat and Don’t Let Go

Something lovely happened over the weekend.  Mary Ito, the host of CBC’s Fresh Air, gave a great plug for my book.

fresh-air-

I didn’t hear it, but friends did. They told me that a woman who’d heard my interview with Mary a couple of weeks back sent an e-mail to the show. She’d given a copy of “Ultra” to her 11 year-old grand-daughter. The grand-daughter devoured it in, like, 2 days.

You have no idea how happy this makes me. Not that Mary read the e-mail (though that was nice too), but that an 11 year-old girl actually liked my book!!!  

I spent twenty years writing short stories and novels. They were awful. Then, suddenly, a couple of years ago, a different kind of story burst out of me; a story about the most unlikely of subjects – a 13 year-old boy who runs a 100-mile footrace. And it got published. And now kids are reading it. Not just boys; girls too. That’s thrilling. Better than thrilling. It’s a dream come true.

Which is funny, because that’s what the novel is about too. Dreams coming true. Oh, I know there’s a big, fat running shoe on the cover, and I know the novel is called “Ultra” – as in ULTRA MARATHON, but at its heart, the book isn’t really about running. It’s about something far more universal.

It’s about grabbing your dreams by the throat and never letting them go.

Cavan Hills 4/10 km Walk/Run, 2013

You probably won’t ever run a 100-mile race. That’s okay. Actually, that’s good! 100 mile races aren’t for everyone. It’s an extreme sport, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone – unless they’re into blisters and hallucinations and smacking into bears in the forest.

But here’s what I DO recommend. And here’s what I hope readers will take away from the book. Ready? Here goes. You too can achieve your dreams.

Simple isn’t it? Totally doable. Doesn’t matter what your dream is. Want to write the perfect pop song? You can do it. Want to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school? You can do it. Want to save Blackberry from extinction? You can do it. Want to become a marine biologist and swim with the dolphins? You can do that too. You’ll get wet, but you can do it.

Figure out your dream, then HANG ON TIGHT. As tightly if you were riding the back of a whale.

Keep chasing your dreams. I know they move fast. But trust me: You are FASTER!!!!!

Inch by Inch it’s a Cinch

A friend recently wrote this on her Facebook wall: Need advice on how to balance 9-5 job with creative projects. 

Trestle bridge

The comments rained down. Kill your TV, get a housekeeper, lose the social life, sleep less.

I thought this: Any self-respecting creative project won’t give you any choice. It’ll hijack your life all on its own.

I know this first-hand. My last creative project (a middle grade novel called “Ultra”) picked me up by the ankles and shook me upside down until 45,000 words came tumbling out.

It was exciting to be swallowed up by the project, but it left me feeling pretty queasy. My little “creative project” informed me, in no uncertain terms, what aspects of my life were priorities, and which aspects needed to be discarded.

There was only one priority. Namely, the novel. Absolutely everything else (family, friends, relationship, wardrobe, personal cleanliness, Game of Thrones) got jettisoned.

I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m still apologising to my wife for that 12-month stretch when I went AWOL.

I love you (again)

There is a better way, of course. If you want to lead a creative life and still keep your job and hang out with your friends and family and children from time to time, the best approach is to play the long game.  Don’t try to paint or write or dance or strum or quilt a masterpiece in a month or two. Instead, scratch out a few minutes, here and there, whenever you can. Every single day. And then – don’t stop.

If you’re a writer, try to write one page per day. That might not sound like a lot, but if you do it religiously, you’ll have an entire book by year’s end.

(True story: I know a writer who keeps a writing pad in the car, so she can jot down ideas in 15 second bursts, whenever she hits a red light.)

It’s like exercising. Experts recommend that we get 45 minutes of physical activity per day, a minimum of 3 days per week. That’s not a lot – barely 2% of the week. And yet if we do it religiously, it’s enough to dramatically transform our lives.

On the road

Photo hat tip: big brother Andy.

Facing Down a Tornado

There’s a scene in my novel (now available, by the way!), in which the main character runs into a tornado while running a 100-mile race.

tornado

IIlustration from an early version of the novel

That’s Quinn, the main character, running along the shore of Hither Lake. Hailstones were crashing down around him, “like rocks in a blender.”

I included this extreme weather in the story because I once experienced a tornado while hanging out at my family cottage in Ontario. Nobody got hurt, but our nerves sure got frayed. Trees broke in two. We lost power for weeks.

This past summer, we had another tornado warning. My brother, The Photographer, caught the threatening skies on film. Here’s what the lake actually looked like.

Tornado warning

This is What a Dream Comes True Looks Like:

first copy of Ultra

Yesssss!

My first novel. In my hands. For realsies.

It was the hardest thing I ever did.  Writing the thing was only half the battle. Getting it published was even harder.

But this feeling, this moment, makes it all worthwhile.

To those of you who are struggling to get your writing into print, please, don’t give up! It can be done. Hard work pays off.

Dave poster 2

And I must give a huge shout-out to my nieces and nephews – who inspired this story, lent their names to some of the characters, helped me with the jokes and dialogue, and even shared early versions of the book with their classmates.  You all deserve a finisher’s medal:

Aaron, Alex, Ali, Ben, Benjamin, Brody, Caelan, Caitlin, Caleb, Christopher, Daniel, Darcie, Grace S., Grace W., Jackson, Julia, Julian, Kara, Kelsey, Kiernan, Leonardo, Lucy-Claire, Luke, Monty, Madelaine, Maggie, Mateos, Nate, Oliver, Olivia, Parisinia, Quinn, Ray, Riley, River, Rowan, Rylee, Sacha, Skyler, Sofia, Sydney, Tahnee, Tobias, Zoe.

Re-writing is your Friend

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People often ask me how many times I re-wrote my first novel, Ultra.  Trust me when I say, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

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I wrote the first version waaaaaay back, in the summer of 2008.  It was 20,000 words long, and it swallowed two months of my life.  Back then, it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.”

I finished the second draft a month later.  By Christmas I’d rewritten it a third time, and then I sent it out.

I sent it to an agent and also a publisher.  The publisher said some nice things about it.  She said the narration was lovely and warm; perhaps too lovely and warm.  She explained that the warm tone made it hard to believe that the central character was living on top of a calamity.  Which was why she was going to take a pass.

The agent didn’t reply.

I wasn’t too upset about it.  I’ve written lots of stuff over the years that never got published.   That’s the writer’s life.  I stuffed the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it.

Two years later, I picked it up again.  I re-wrote it for…let’s see…the fourth time.

After 5 months of work, I pitched it 50 agents.  49 of them said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The fiftieth agent (the brilliant Scott Waxman who represents some of the finest sports writers, including the legendary John L. Parker) called me on the phone.  When I saw the 212 area code on the display, I knew something was up.  Scott told me that he liked my story.  He said, however, that he wasn’t quite ready to offer representation just yet.  There were a few things I ought to think about – if, that is, I was “willing to re-write the manuscript.”   

I thought about the improvements that Scott suggested.  I thought about them for all of ten seconds.

Once again, I started re-writing.  When I finished that re-write I did another.

And then another.

And then another.

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After six months of re-writing, Scott Waxman accepted my novel.  I received an “Offer to Represent” in the mail.

Cue the champagne corks!  Cue the s’mores!

A couple of months later, the novel sold to Scholastic Canada.

MORE champagne!  MORE s’mores!

In the year or so since I signed with Scholastic, I’ve done three more rewrites.  The first took 3 months, the second took one month, the third took a week.

That makes eleven re-writes in all.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but listen: with every single re-write the book got better!

Lesson learned:

Writing a book, and running 100 miles, are similar in two distinct ways.

(1) Both involve a TON of pain.

and (2) The finish line is incredibly sweet.

An Ultra-Challenge for July

Of all the months, July is THE BEST.  July is like hitting a bunch of green lights in a row.  It’s better than the smell of crayons.  It’s the Justin Timberlake of months.

I usually take the whole month off, rent a cabin surrounded by hills and trails, and just run.  Last year, near Collingwood, I logged 347 miles on the Bruce Trail.  The July before that, I covered 316 miles in the Haliburton Forest. The July before that I managed, well, only 272 miles, but that’s because I was running up and down mountains in France.

Running up "The Canigou" - near Perpignan, France

Running up “The Canigou” – near Perpignan, France

This July, I’ve set an even BIGGER challenge.  In addition to running 12 miles per day, I’m determined to write my second novel.

WHAT???  In a month?  Who does he think he is – Stephen King?

Actually, I don’t have to write it from scratch.  I wrote a first draft a couple of years ago, but then I set it aside, so I could work on my other book, which is, you know, actually getting published.

This July is the first chance I’ve had to go back to work on that other writing project.  It’s a big, messy, 60,000-word turd right now, but I’m excited about polishing it into a diamond.

So every day this July, in addition to burning 1000 calories on the trail, I’m hoping to produce 2000 words.  Words that glitter like spun glass, words that gleam like dragonflies in sunshine, words that shimmer like cobwebbed trees in summery skies

Okay, I’ll stop now.

This July, I’m also planning to: eat 30 salads, drink 30 cups of coffee, watch 30 sunsets, take 30 naps, and watch zero television shows.

Wish me luck!

My First Book Interview

My novel is going to the printer TODAY.  Synchronize your watches – it’ll be hitting the bookstores in ten weeks.  

Ultra cover

I had my first book interview today.  Strange experience.  I work for the media, so for years, I’ve been the one asking the questions, not answering them.  Role reversal!

Still, it was fun to talk about these characters who’ve been making a racket inside my head for the last three years.

Here are the first five questions I was asked as an author:

Q: What is the best part of being an author?

I love that the gear is so cheap!  If I wanted to be a professional snowboarder, I’d have to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment.  The board, the boots, the bindings, the jacket…  Pricey!  But all an author needs is a pen and some paper.  What does that cost – maybe $5?

Also, I never get hurt, writing books.  That’s a definite plus for me.  If I was a hockey player in the NHL, I’d probably get hit a lot.  I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to getting hit, so that wouldn’t be much fun.  As an author, the worst thing that can happen is I get a paper cut.

The best thing about being an author, however, is that the job is dead easy.  The alphabet only has 26 letters.  So all I have to do is arrange those letters in such a way that they tell a good story.  How hard could that be?

Q: What inspired you to write Ultra?

Five years ago, I did an insane thing.  I entered a hundred-mile footrace.  For 24 hours – all day and all night – I ran through a forest.  Some runners saw bears along the route, and all through the night I heard wolves howling in the distance.  It was a terrifying and exhausting experience.  But when I crossed the finish line, my life had changed.  I’d always thought it was impossible to run 100 miles in a day, but now that I’d done it, the whole world seemed different.  I’d changed the goalposts of what I believed was possible.  So I decided to try something else that I’d always thought was impossible – writing and publishing a novel.  And voila!

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Deciding whether or not the main character, Quinn, should win the race.  For the longest time, I had him crossing the finish line first.  But then I decided that he shouldn’t win; that something else – something dramatic – should happen instead.  So I rewrote the ending.  But then I gave the book to family members to read, and they complained about the ending.  So I rewrote it again, and then again.

I went back and forth, rewriting that ending for a year.  I can’t even remember anymore whether Quinn wins or loses the race.  But I will say this.  Most 100-mile races don’t give prizes to the winners.  Usually the winner just gets a pat on the back, a warm blanket, and a bowl of vegetable soup.  Almost nobody runs a 100-mile race in order to win.  They do it for other, much stranger reasons.

Q: In what ways are you like Quinn, the protagonist in your book?

I share Quinn’s determination.  Once I get an idea into my head, I’ll stick with it, no matter how much it hurts.  That’s why I can run 100 miles in one go.  Also, I love being outside, and I’m okay with being alone sometimes.  I’m a bit of an introvert, and I think Quinn is too.

And finally, like Quinn, I have a really solid friend.  And an amazing family that supports me – even when I do crazy things.

Q: What was your favourite book growing up?

“Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome.  It’s about a group of kids who climb mountains and race sailboats and survive shipwrecks and explore the high English moors.  Their parents are nowhere in sight, and the kids are always outdoors, facing the elements.  My dad read that book aloud for my whole family when I was a kid.  He’d read one chapter each night before bedtime, and the next morning me and my brother would race for the book so we could read on ahead.

“Swallows and Amazons” was the first in a long series, and Dad read us every single one over the course of a long, magical summer.  And that’s saying something, since there are twelve books in the series, and each one is 350 pages long.  Looking back, I think that experience cemented my love of reading.  Dad reading those books out loud.

Coming Soon – My New Novel About Running

Ultra cover

The 100 mile race is a harsh and hostile immensity, and to take it on is to enter a war.

ULTRA is the story of Quinn’s war.  A war against fatigue, despair, dehydration, wild animals, hallucinations, and a dangerous family secret.

It’ll be published by Scholastic in September.

Ultra